The apocalypse—for all the questions of when and where and why and how surrounding it—will actually be a rather straightforward affair. At some point in time, after a particularly grueling winter, Odin, the all-father, will find himself plummeting into the stomach of Fenrir—son of Loki—the wolf whose upper jaw can scrape the sky while his lower jaw scrapes the earth. Fenrir’s brother, the colossal serpent Jörmungandr, will do battle with Thor, god of thunder and son of Odin. They will kill each other—as all but a few gods and people and things will kill each other—during Ragnarök: the end of the world as prophesied in Norse mythology.
Humankind will avoid eradication thanks to two survivors, who will have hidden from the battle. They will reemerge after the fighting and, under the eye of the leftover gods, rebuild. Ragnarök is thus a matter of balance. It destroys in order to create anew.
In the past two years, three popular texts have explored Ragnarök and honored its theme of re-creation with projects of artistic reinvention: Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is a contemporary author’s retelling of timeless Norse tales; Taika Waititi’s superhero film Thor: Ragnarok features a new director taking a storied character in a new direction; and the video game God of War relocates a series historically set in the Greek mythos to Norse lands.
The texts, taken collectively, suggest a common interest in endings—an unsurprising fixation given that the modern world must contend with climate change and overcrowding and resource exhaustion and the prospect of nuclear war and—the list goes on. But modern humankind has experienced and overcome its fair share of apocalyptic panic: consider Y2K, the truncated Mayan calendar, the manifold meteors that have skirted our orbit, the cults of faux soothsayers, or the entirety of the Cold War. The world has, time and time again, survived mostly intact. Life has gone on with some degree of recognizability.
The current moment, however, feels different. Although the mechanisms of Trump—white supremacy, jingoism, disenfranchisement, and so on—are not entirely new, the administration appears to be weaponizing them in unprecedented ways. As a result, the dangers facing humankind can feel overwhelming, less because of their novelty than because of their appetite. One gets the impression that the reactionary “populist” surge rippling across the earth could, if allowed to, consume everything.
By wholeheartedly embracing Ragnarök’s brutality, “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Norse Mythology,” and “God of War” reveal a truth that makes the possibility of a second chance seem preposterous.
Which raises the question: Is this apocalypse the real deal? Have things gotten so bad that what stands to be lost transcends the planet and humanity? Could the end destroy even the gods?
The complement to Ragnarök’s rampant destruction is its sense of order. We know how the gods will die, how humankind will barely persist, and how the world will enter a dark but temporary stasis. (That knowledge is a welcome departure from the unpredictable—from the polls, the president, and everything else about which we know less and less.) We also know what the aftermath of the end will look like: calamity will be followed not by further calamity or silence or absence, but by newness. The hope inherent in such newness materializes throughout Norse Mythology, Thor: Ragnarok, and God of War. All three, both quietly and bombastically, frame rubble as the foundation of rebirth.
But Ragnarök, as an organizing principle, proves unwieldy. By wholeheartedly embracing Ragnarök’s brutality, the works reveal a truth that makes the possibility of a second chance seem preposterous. Were humans and gods to arise anew, they would repeat the mistakes of their ancestors. They would, gradually if not immediately, return to familiar tools: to violence and war and hate and death. They would rebuild the world as inadequately as it had been built the first time. The same old rulers would reign; cycles would not break.
In the opening moments of Thor: Ragnarok, the titular thunder god (Chris Hemsworth) lies in a cage, wrapped in chains. He speaks aloud, reflecting on his imprisonment and his heroism, until the camera reveals his listener: a skeleton at the other end of the cage. When Thor asks the skeleton, “How much longer do you think we’ll be here?,” both he and the pile of bones stand in for the audience. We are Thor because we’re eager for the action to get underway—this is a Marvel movie, after all—and we’re the skeleton because we’ll sit here forever, so long as superheroes keep finding their way onto movie screens.
But Ragnarok is not typical Marvel fare. The film, directed by Taika Waititi, is odd and earnest enough to be the most surprising superhero movie since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
Thor’s initial task in Ragnarok is to prevent the end of the world. Upon getting out of the cage, he defeats the flame giant Surtur, who intends to obliterate Asgard, the seat of the Norse gods. Thor then moves on to the more pressing concern of stopping his sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), who has returned from exile to claim the Asgardian throne.
Hela, viewers learn, previously served as the instrument of Odin’s conquests, the bloody campaigns that put nine realms under the control of the all-father and his kin. In one of the film’s most striking moments, Hela destroys a mural, part of which features Odin, Thor, Loki, and others sporting halos and brandishing peace treaties. The mural, it turns out, had covered an older one that portrayed Hela and Odin riding into battle, leaving only death in their wake.
The hidden mural is slightly jarring against the extreme lightheartedness—and obliviousness—of Ragnarok’s Thor (and against how adorable Anthony Hopkins looks in the role of Odin: bearded, eye-patched, and donning a creamy suit). There’s horror behind Asgard’s infinite power, and Hela highlights that horror not to prevent its repetition, but to return Asgard to its glory days of expansionist empire. The unfortunate familiarity of Hela’s villainy, in turn, points to her most frightening quality: how unextreme she feels. She is an entirely fathomable evil. The threat of her reign is less dystopian than it is the next logical step of contemporary far-right, dog-whistle politics. The compass by which Hela seeks to govern is, plainly, imperialist self-interest—not a far cry from Trump’s veneration of President Andrew Jackson or his decision to begin the US’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.
Luckily for Thor and Co., Hela appears to perish when Surtur, at the end of the film, fulfills the prophecy of Ragnarök and burns Asgard to ashes. But Hela, win or lose, is right about Thor and Odin. They gained their power through death and can retain it solely through death.
Ragnarok suggests as much when Thor decides to take his newly homeless people to Earth. Thor is ostensibly enlightened, wary of repeating his father’s sins. But once on Earth, Thor will, of course, reconvene with the rest of the Avengers. He has to: there are and might always be more movies to make and more killings to perform. The gods will rebuild, and the lessons they learn will be fleeting. They will create new murders and new murals to honor them.
Thor loses an eye during his battle with Hela, and thereafter wears an eyepatch just like his father did. The empty space where Thor’s eye used to be is meant to represent the sacrifice of physical sight in favor of mental acuity—Odin of myth gouged his eye out to earn a drink from the well of knowledge, and now Thor has inadvertently mirrored that votive gesture. But the hole in Thor’s face evokes something else: his inability to change. Thor looks like his father and is maimed like him, and he is doomed to fall like him.
Like Ragnarok, Gaiman’s Norse Mythology concludes with the end of the world. The book’s final chapter is matter-of-fact: Gaiman fluidly moves from point to point, from winter to anger to war to darkness. “I shall tell you how it will end,” he writes, “and then how it will begin once more.”
The other myths Gaiman recounts are accessible and mostly enjoyable, if a bit unmemorable. The pieces that stand out in hindsight are largely those that serve as harbingers of Ragnarök. “The Story of Gerd and Frey,” for instance—which explains how the fertility god Frey lost his formidable blade—ends with a disquieting omen: “Ragnarok is coming. When the sky splits asunder and the dark powers of Muspell march out on their war journey, Frey will wish he still had his sword.” The knowledge that Frey will miss his weapon proves more poignant than the romantic tale of how he lost it. Norse mythology, in other words, derives a great deal of its power and poetry from tragedy.
From Frey, readers move on to a story about Thor fishing with a giant and almost catching the serpent Jörmungandr. Lest the subject of fishing seem unfit for violence (other than that inflicted upon the fish), worry not: the Norse mythos is an especially bloody one. Gaiman writes that, after the fishing expedition, Thor kills a large group of giants pursuing him: “methodically, enthusiastically … until the earth ran black and red with their blood.” The pervasiveness of violence in Norse Mythology—its inevitability as well as the pleasure that the gods find in it—serves to prepare the reader for Ragnarök itself. Each death thins out the earth in anticipation of the ultimate thinning-out. And the coolness and simplicity with which Gaiman relays the bloodshed, his prose as straightforward as the swings of Thor’s giant-bashing hammer, both allures and unsettles.
Explaining his attraction to Norse mythology in the book’s introduction, Gaiman writes, “Ragnarok made the Norse world linger for me, seem strangely present and current, while other, better-documented systems of belief felt as if they were part of the past, old things.” Ragnarök’s ancientness and ambiguity do indeed bolster, rather than undermine, its appeal. The tale is simultaneously old enough to have amassed authority and obscure enough to retain the magnetism that mystery offers. (As opposed to, say, the Book of Revelation, which has inspired countless doomsdays-that-weren’t.) In the 21st century, one can dive into Ragnarök and wonder: Have the Norse gods been relegated to history because they’ve already killed each other off? Or because they’re elsewhere, existing, slumbering until Heimdall’s horn awakens them for their final battle?
It has become clichéd to note that many video games are, at their core, power fantasies: ways of granting players access to strength often kept at a distance. But as far as such games go, few welcome the manic illusion of power more than those in the God of War series, which currently spans eight games released between 2005 and 2018. The games tend to feature the Spartan demigod warrior Kratos cutting demons, gods, and other creatures to bits, growing in rage and ability with each evisceration. There are some puzzles to solve, too—and combat itself can be puzzle-like, as players must refine the best practices of murder—but God of War titles privilege the body over the mind. Kratos is a doer, not a thinker.
Kratos accomplishes his greatest feat in the original God of War and its sequel, when he culls the Greek pantheon—including Zeus, his father—and ascends to the war god’s seat after making and then spurning an oath to Ares. But in 2018’s God of War, players find Kratos beyond Greece, in Midgard—Norse myth’s human realm—with his young son Atreus, who accompanies him throughout the game. Whereas Kratos previously fought to escape the dominion of gods, he now fights to fulfill the dying wish of his recently deceased wife. (Long ago, he killed his first wife and daughter as a result of Ares’s manipulation, leading him to reject the divine.) Kratos’s trek through Midgard appears to set Ragnarök in motion: toward the very end of the game, Mimir, one of Asgard’s wisest figures, recognizes the deep winter that has set in and warns Kratos of the world’s forthcoming end. “Prophecy doesn’t expect this for a hundred more winters at least,” he says. “You’ve changed something. Prophecy didn’t count on you.”
Who’s to say that a world created in Ragnarök’s shadow would be any more idyllic and forgiving than the one currently falling to pieces?
Ragnarök doesn’t transpire in God of War—the game predominantly sets the scene for the apocalypse—but it’s practically assured to occur in a follow-up (or in a follow-up to a follow-up). And the end times shouldn’t make Kratos too uncomfortable, for his earlier killing spree essentially amounted to the Ragnarök-ification of Greek mythology, crushing the hegemony of classical antiquity and “Western” gods. The déjà vu of impending wholesale deicide contributes to the broader familiarity that marks God of War despite the changes that the game has made to the series’s setting, genre, pacing, and more. Most familiar of all is Kratos himself, who has remained quite static. Though he has a new purpose in life, he still solves his problems by decapitating, blinding, and butchering.
But regardless of God of War’s halfhearted metamorphosis, the game makes compelling use of Norse mythology. For one thing, in contrast to the earlier games, the reboot is more willing to use mythological figures for purposes other than slaughter. When an early trailer revealed Jörmungandr, many observers were shocked to learn that the serpent would be an ally rather than something that Kratos would tear in half.
Also notable is the fact that the more recognizable Norse gods—namely Odin and Thor—don’t appear in the game. (Thor does show up in a hidden cutscene following the game’s ending, but players don’t see his face.) Balder and Freya, the erstwhile partner of Odin, play major roles in God of War’s plot, but this is predominantly a story of lesser-known characters: of Magni and Modi, sons of Thor; of Mimir, counselor to the gods; of Sigrun, queen of the Valkyries. Leaving the big names out of God of War both gives Kratos and Atreus more space in the narrative and sets the stage for an inevitable sequel. The game reportedly sold 5 million copies in its first month—it has a big-budget, multi-entry future ahead of it. Prophecy surely counted on that.
But beyond commercial aspirations, God of War’s limited cast serves another purpose: it subtly acknowledges the massive scale of Ragnarök’s catastrophe. It is not just Odin, Thor, and other A-list gods who will perish—so too will the minor deities and figures, the animals of the earth, and all but two human beings.
According to the tales, Magni and Modi are meant to survive Ragnarök. In God of War, however, Kratos splits Magni’s head open with an axe: he has not only accelerated Ragnarök, but also expanded its scope. And while Kratos’s god-slaying is reluctant—he’d now rather avoid the gods than risk their ire—it comes to shape Atreus far more than Kratos’s spoken lessons of self-control do. Later in the game, Kratos urges Atreus not to kill Modi, Magni’s brother. But Atreus, blinded by wrath, stabs Modi in the neck. And that’s how violence works, isn’t it? It is taught and inherited and inflicted anew.
Who’s to say that a world created in Ragnarök’s shadow would be any more idyllic and forgiving than the one currently falling to pieces? It would be more honest to expect humans and gods, once remade, to find new ways to destroy each other and themselves. Such violence constitutes the unwritten afterward to Gaiman’s Norse Mythology; it is surely the tool that Thor will continue to wield in movies; and it is all that lies in store for God of War’s revitalization: a father, a son, and countless ghosts.